Matan Kahana: the Religious, Conservative Politician Taking On Israel’s Rabbinic Establishment

One of the little-noted facts about the Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is that he is the country’s first Orthodox head of government; moreover, religious Zionists are his Yamina party’s key constituency. Unlike Ḥaredim, members of this heterogeneous group serve in the military, generally embrace secular education and work, and, most saliently, wear knitted kippot. Matan Kahana, another Yamina member and the current minister of religious affairs, perhaps embodies this group’s ethos, which can be seen in his attempts to reform the chief rabbinate—efforts that have attracted intra-Orthodox controversy and in a roundabout away led to the current coalition crisis. Matti Friedman writes:

Kahana came to the attention of many Israelis for the first time last June, after the formation of the new government, amid a furious day in the Knesset during which the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, shocked to find themselves removed from power after twelve years, shouted down the coalition’s speakers and disrupted attempts by the new government to present its platform. . . . The ultra-Orthodox MKs had been shouting at Bennett and Kahana to “take off their kippahs.” At the podium, a furious Kahana directed a startling attack at one of the most vociferous of those lawmakers, Moshe Gafni.

The religious-secular fight has been going on since the creation of the state and is familiar to everyone here, but Kahana was saying something different. He wasn’t speaking against religion—he was saying that he was religion, that his religious Zionism was as authentic as the non-Zionist stringency of the ultra-Orthodox, if not more so. He wasn’t throwing out the rabbinic bureaucracy. He was saying the wrong rabbis were in charge.

Kahana is not a liberal. He’s a different kind of religious conservative. “Israel is an Orthodox country,” he told me, and will remain that way in the absence of a wave of new immigrants from liberal Jewish denominations. A compromise to allow non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall should have passed years ago, he said, but he’s not going to be the one to pass it now, because doing so would endanger the coalition’s fragile hold on power. “I don’t want to disappoint my Reform brothers, and I’m choosing my words carefully—my Reform brothers,” he said. “But I’m an Orthodox Jew, a conservative.”

Part of this insistence is an attempt to protect his flank from attempts to portray him as a closet liberal intent on undermining traditional Judaism. But it’s mostly genuine. His reforms are not aimed at weakening the Jewish DNA of the state, but the opposite. He wants a more Jewish Israel. “The less we force Judaism,” he said, “the more people will choose it.”

Read more at Tablet

More about: Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Israeli politics, Judaism in Israel, Religious Zionism

Israel’s Retaliation against the Houthis Sends a Message to the U.S., and to Its Arab Allies

The drone that struck a Tel Aviv high-rise on Thursday night is believed to have traveled over 2,000 kilometers, flying from Yemen over Egypt and then above the Mediterranean before veering eastward toward the Israeli coast. Since October, the Houthis have launched over 200 drones at Israel. Nor is this the first attempt to strike Tel Aviv, only the first successful one. Noah Rothman observes that the Houthis’ persistent attacks on Israel and on international shipping are largely the result of the U.S.-led coalition’s anemic response:

Had the Biden administration taken a more proactive and vigorous approach to neutralizing the Houthis’ capabilities, Israel would not be obliged to expand to Yemen the theater of operations in the war Hamas inaugurated on October 7. The prospects of a regional war grow larger by the day, not because Israel cannot “take the win,” as President Biden reportedly told Benjamin Netanyahu following a full-scale direct Iranian attack on the Jewish state, but because hostile foreign actors are killing its citizens. Jerusalem is obliged to defend them and the sovereignty of Israel’s borders.

Biden’s hesitancy was fueled by his apprehension over the prospect of a “wider war” in the Middle East. But his hesitancy is what is going to give him the war he so cravenly sought to avoid.

In this context, the nature of the Israeli response is significant: rather than follow the American strategy of striking isolated weapons depots and the like, IDF jets struck the port city of Hodeida—the sort of major target the U.S. has shied away from. The mission was likely the furthest-ever carried out by the Israel Air Force, hitting a site 200 kilometers further from Israel than Tehran. Yoel Guzansky and Ilan Zalayat comment:

The message that Israel sent was intended to reach the moderate Arab countries, the West, and especially the United States. . . . The message to the coalition countries is that “the containment” had failed and the Houthis must be hit harder. The Hodeida port is the lifeline of the Houthi economy and continued damage to it will make it extremely difficult for this economy, which is also facing significant American sanctions.

Read more at National Review

More about: Houthis, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy